Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser for the Conservative Party. Follow Garvan on Twitter.
“It couldn’t have been al-Qaeda,” she said to me, “the attacks weren’t competent enough.” The very fact that the bombings of the Boston marathon, awful though they were, prompted speculation like this, shows that the terrorist networks’ reach into the West is much less than it was (its organisations remain strong in the Middle East, on the same day 30 people were killed by a suicide bomb in Iraq). Where once they recruited highly qualified engineers and doctors, it now seems that one of the suspects was thought, even by his own uncle, to be a “loser.”
Security analysts have for some time concluded that al-Qaeda is much less of an organisation, and much more of a ‘brand’ or ‘franchise’ than it once was. It allows an organisation to attach its name to theirs (as Jamat-al-Nusra may well have just done in Syria). It provides training, plus a certain ideological direction. It may even help with finance or weapons. Indeed, Peter Bergen’s thesis, in Holy War, Inc, a book that had fortuitously been scheduled to appear in the autumn of 2001, was that Osama bin Laden’s group was a “holding company” of terror.
Bin Laden’s replacement, Ayman al-Zawahiri, divided his enemies into ‘far:’ the United States, other western countries, and Russia, and ‘near:’ the secular autocrats and the insufficiently fanatical Muslim Brotherhood . Al-Qaeda’s strategy had been to attack the ‘far enemy’ to fatally weaken the near. Twelve years on, it has proved a total disaster, and it’s becoming clear that extreme Islamist strategies are diverging.
In Muslim-majority countries they look increasingly like traditional, ideological guerilla movements. They attack governments’ superior conventional forces in ambushes, with roadside bombs and occasional militarily unsuccessful but spectacular attacks to weaken their enemies’ morale. They set up networks of supporters using threats and bribes. Finally, they prepare a parallel administration, as the Taliban have been doing for some time.
A guerilla war needs discipline and organisation: Sartre’s play, Dirty Hands, is in part the story of a breakdown in the revolutionaries’ discipline, and the need for its own personnel to enforce it with brutality. Opportunities for glory are few. Most work is gruelling, boring and dangerous. Security forces have ample chance to "turn" disillusioned ex-radicals. Suspicion of infiltrators runs rife. Camaraderie is never enough to sustain such an organisation. Effective terrorist groups require ferocious internal discipline, and only survive in a population not merely sympathetic to their aims, but also intimidated into providing them support than reporting them to the authorities. And under all this pressure they must maintain technical proficiency even as their adversaries arrest or kill talented bomb-makers, quartermasters and strategists.
Without this, which needs a large group of ideologically-minded supporters, they are reduced to “lone wolf” type attacks, where an individual or small group learns his trade by downloading manuals from the internet supplemented perhaps by the occasional trip to a besieged mountain training camp. Lone wolves can certainly be dangerous: Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma bomb killed almost 150 people, but, if one can put it this way, the quality of their work is usually extremely low. Many of their attacks fail, their amateurish plotting exposed in terrorism trials, or, as with the attempt to bomb Tiger Tiger, their badly-designed car bomb was noticed smoking and sputtering by perhaps the only traffic warden ever to deserve a knighthood.
More importantly, lone wolves who, in the jargon, “self-recruit,” can only with extreme difficulty be used to execute a strategy. They pursue their pet projects, not the ones of most use to a terrorist organisation. They get arrested, and so don’t gain experience. Compare them to the IRA, which was able to cause a lot more damage and disruption than Islamist terrorists, because their organisation gave them the ability to accumulate experience, use fake bomb threats to cause enormous disruption at no risk to their members for the cost of a phone call and evade capture (though not infiltration) by the British or Irish governments.
The Boston bombings provide no reason for letting our guard down, but they show that good police intelligence work, combined with a political and ideological campaign in support of parliamentary democracy and against extremist ideas and values, even if it can’t always stop small groups of people committing an attack, can make it much more difficult for such attacks to succeed.